CAIBARIEN, CUBA (AFP) - Deadly Hurricane Irma battered central Cuba on Saturday (Sept 9), knocking down power lines, uprooting trees and ripping the roofs off homes as it headed towards Florida.
Authorities said they had evacuated more than a million people as a precaution, including about 4,000 in the capital.
Gusts, torrential rain and storm waves lashed Caibarien, a town of 40,000 people on Cuba's northern coast.
"Oh God, this is going to destroy the town," said a local woman who identified herself only as Francis, 19.
She fled her home near the seafront to seek refuge in her grandfather's house.
"The water was already at the corner near my house. By now it will be full of water," she said.
PARK BENCHES TORN UP
Ambulances and firefighters patrolled streets littered with hunks of roofs, power lines and tree branches cast down by strong winds that blasted over Cuba on Saturday.
In one park, the wind tore up benches that had been screwed down into the concrete floor.
Local radio issued constant messages warning people not to leave their homes while the hurricane passed.
Yet still some locals came out into the streets on bicycles to check on their friends and relatives.
Ramon Cobas, 72, and his wife Rosa, 64, sheltered six relatives in their house, one of the sturdiest buildings in the town.
Fragments of glass rubble from other buildings struck the house as they huddled inside.
"These winds are stronger than those of Kate," said Rosa, referring to the devastation wrought in 1985 by Hurricane Kate.
"I'm afraid even this house will fall down. And I am afraid for the neighbors." Residents were also afraid of flooding since the town has no storm drains in its streets.
Irma was "seriously" damaging the centre of the island with winds up to 256kmh, Cuban state media said.
The storm weakened slightly to category 3 after making landfall in Cuba early Saturday, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC).
There were no confirmed casualties in Cuba. But the hurricane killed at least 25 people earlier on its path across the Caribbean.
Cuba's state meteorological service reported waves of up to seven meters on the northern coast. Irma was affecting the "whole territory" of Cuba, it said.
"It has finished raining, but all night long there were terrible winds" that ripped up trees, knocked down power lines and damaged roofs, Gisela Fernandez, a 42-year-old nurse in central Villa Clara province, told AFP.
A large part of the centre and east of the island was without power, according to television reports.
Irma is expected to strike the Florida Keys early Sunday before moving up the peninsular US state.
Meanwhile, Havana was forecast to receive just the tail-end of Irma, but civil defence authorities placed it and two neighboring provinces on maximum flood alert.
Authorities in the Cuban capital, population two million, were evacuating people from low-lying districts at risk from Atlantic storm surges.
Enormous waves lashed the Malecon, the capital's emblematic seafront, causing seawaters to wash some 250 meters into the city, AFP journalists found.
Leonor Herrera, a 64-year-old retiree, said the last time she witnessed waves in the city was during 2005's Hurricane Wilma, when the water "was up to our knees".
"At the moment, it's not so high, but there's times when it rises and you must run inside," she said.
Tourism minister Alexis Trujillo said authorities had "evacuated all the hotels on the coast" around Havana, a major destination for foreign tourists.
Meteorologist Jose Rubiera warned on television that Havana will suffer "strong tropical storm winds and coastal flooding" on Saturday and Sunday.
"They told us we were in danger," said Daysi Cruz, 68, after being evacuated from her home near the seafront to go and stay with relatives.
"I tried to put some of my things in a high place so they don't get damaged if the water comes."